Most of us rarely think about our bones – until we break one. And once it heals, we usually return to a state of blissful ignorance. But ignoring your bones is the worst thing you can do if you want to lower your risk of osteoporosis and help ensure a fracture-free future. “Bone health is something Boomer women should take seriously because so many will be affected by osteoporosis,” says Dr. Bill Dunfee, a fellowship-trained musculoskeletal radiologist with HealthOne’s Radiology Imaging Associates. Osteoporosis, a condition in which bones weaken so much that they can be easily fractured, usually strikes women after age 50. This is because bone mass and bone density, a measure of bone strength, decline dramatically as estrogen levels drop off after menopause. One in two women over age 50 will have a fracture due to osteoporosis in her lifetime. Worse, 20 percent of women who have a hip fracture will die from complications within six months, according to the National Osteoporosis Foundation (NOF). Osteoporosis is often called the silent disease because it occurs without symptoms. “Women often don’t know they have it until a sudden bump or minor fall causes a debilitating fracture,” Dunfee says. But Boomers aren’t powerless against this bone-thinning disease. Taking protective steps can help reduce the risk.
In the past, osteoporosis could only be determined after you broke a bone. By that time, bones could be quite weak and difficult to strengthen. “Boomers are fortunate because there’s now a test to determine whether you have osteoporosis or are at risk of getting it,” notes Dunfee. A bone density test – also called a DXA scan – makes it possible to know your risk of breaking a bone due to osteoporosis ahead of time. It uses x-rays to determine the density of bones by measuring how much calcium and other bone minerals are packed into the bone. Ask your doctor if you should be screened for osteoporosis by having a bone density test. Although federal guidelines don’t call for this screening until age 65, many doctors recommend it much earlier. “You can lose up to 20 percent of your bone mass in the five to seven years after menopause, says Dunfee, who performs bone density testing at Sky Ridge Medical Center, Swedish Medical Center, Centennial Medical Center and the Medical Center of Aurora. Osteoporosis in your mother or grandmother and a history of easily breaking your bones are red flags that may indicate you need a bone density test earlier than age 65. If the results indicate you have pre-osteoporosis, known as osteopenia, or are in the beginning stages of full-blown osteoporosis, you may need to take aggressive steps to thwart further loss. A number of prescription medicines are now available that can stop and even reverse bone loss.
THE EXERCISE RX
Even with the availability of bone-building medicines, it’s important to take other steps to strengthen your bones. Exercise is one of the best ways to fend off osteoporosis. Weight-bearing activities – walking, jogging, stair climbing, jumping and weight lifting – help increase bone density. Non-weight bearing activities, such as swimming, although great for the cardiovascular system, don’t have much effect on bone density. Bones increase their mass in response to loads placed on them. And the more you use your bones, the stronger they get. “This is true from infancy until the end of life,” Dunfee says. “If you continue to walk as you age, it can help your bones strengthen well into your 90s.” Walking offers another fracture-reducing benefit: With each step you take, you’re balancing on one leg until the other leg kicks in, which helps increase balance, Dunfee says. The better your balance, the less likely that you’ll take a tumble in your home and break a hip.
OTHER OSTEOPOROSIS PROOFERS
Calcium is essential for healthy bones. Most Boomer women need 1200 to 1500 mg daily, according to the NOF. A glass of milk or fortified OJ contains about 300 mg, while an ounce of cheddar cheese has 200 mg. If you find it difficult to get enough through your diet, you may need to take calcium supplements. But calcium is not the “I work alone” type. It does a significantly better job of protecting your skeleton when combined with vitamin D. Only small amounts of this vitamin are found in foods; it’s mainly produced by your skin when exposed to the sun. Just 15 minutes of SPF-free exposure daily is enough to protect your skeleton, according to Dunfee. (Most calcium supplements also contain vitamin D.) Avoiding alcohol and smoking will also help. Alcohol interferes with calcium absorption, and smoking is toxic to the body’s bone-building osteoblast cells, Dunfee says. Finally, java junkies beware: Excessive caffeine consumption causes too much calcium to be excreted in the urine. If you’re at high risk for osteoporosis, you may want to limit caffeine, as well as alcohol. It’s never too late to start protecting your bones, Dunfee says. The more you do to build bone density now, the greater the odds you’ll still be shaking your booty on the dance floor well into your golden years.
Simply being a woman puts you at risk for osteoporosis. Over 80 percent of Boomers with osteoporosis will be women, according to the National Osteoporosis Foundation. Other osteoporosis risk factors:
- A family history of osteoporosis
- Ethnicity–Caucasian and Asian women have a higher risk than Hispanic and African-Americans
- An inactive lifestyle
- Inadequate calcium intake
- A history of eating disorders
- A small, thin body frame
- Cigarette smoking
- Excessive alcohol consumption– more than two drinks per day
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